The Design of Perception

Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali (1937)

As a designer, I do my best to uphold the tenets and principles of good design in all the things that I’ve created over the years. These intractable rules have come down to us from all the various art and design movements that form the history of visual communication. It is usually when we violate these principles (due to time, budgets, or compromises) that we get into trouble. All forms of visual media have to deal with this problem. Despite these principles however, it is perception, the mind’s eye of the viewer, that can supersede any rules or principles, regardless of how true they may be.

What is perception?

On a scientific level, it is “the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment.” [from Wikipedia] Without the ability to process sensory information to understand our environment, our earliest human ancestors would not have been able to hunt for food, avoid predators, and just generally survive.

So what does perception have to do with design?

Today, humans don’t need their senses and cognitive capabilities to hunt and survive as our ancestors did. But the traits and capabilities are still there. We still take in information from the environment around us, process it, but we utilize it in very different ways. Today, we’re usually interacting with some product that someone else made; a coffee maker, a computer, a smartphone. As such, it is often the designer’s role to define how people perceive the things in our everyday environment.

In essence, perception is user experience.

Our Responsibility

Good design is honest – It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

— Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Good Design

As a general rule, a designer should strive for Truth in their work. It is not just a requirement, but good design also demands it from its practitioners. Any design concept that tries to factor in deception or fake information is inherently incapable of achieving its true goals. As a result, designers also may have to hold the line on ethics, even when there may be pressure from within an organization to do the opposite.

As designers, we’re responsible for defining many of the important touch points that formulate the customer’s experience with a product or service. These touch points, when put together, can also tell the story about what a company values. This is why defects in the design of the customer’s experience (even small ones) can sometimes have a large and even long-lasting effect later on. The accumulation of these negative touch points can quickly send a message to the user that a company doesn’t care, and will not be worthy of doing business with.

Dark patterns fall into this category of things. They’re called dark patterns because they involve dishonesty. Being dishonest, untruthful, or deceptive can provide temporary boosts in certain metrics in exchange for long-term well-being. Sometimes the teams you’ll work with will suggest using tactics from the dark patterns playbook, usually to stir up “growth”. But these sorts of tactics should be avoided.

Duck or rabbit? Neither or both?

There certainly are grey areas. Take the above image for example. It is a classic optical illusion. At first glance, you may perceive this image to be of a duck. But the longer you look at it, the image of a rabbit’s head may begin to reveal itself. What to make of this? If someone perceives it to be a rabbit and only a rabbit, is it wrong? I suppose if the creator of the image meant for people to perceive it to be only a duck, then perhaps they failed in some way. But what about products or services where the creator intends to deceive?

Re-defining our purpose

I have sometimes remarked that, as designers, we are more involved with controlling perception, rather than truth. Or perhaps it’s more specifically about controlling the perception about the truth. So maybe we can redefine our roles to be less about user experience design, and more about user perception design.

We live in the post-information age, where perception about factual information is seemingly as fragile as the fallen leaves in winter. We know that people can be easily manipulated. All it takes is a website, some advertisers, and you can publish things that sound as legitimate as the people doing true honest journalism. Gather up a following and you can even be responsible for a political movement. All you need to do is control perception.

There is no question in my mind that people will continue to ask designers to do things that push the boundaries of ethics in pursuit of profits. Successful companies do this all the time. It is the nature of business. Apple would never have developed the Mac interface, had they not stolen ideas from Xerox Parc. Microsoft would never had been as successful with Windows had they then not stolen ideas on graphical user interfaces from Apple.

In the end, as a designer and as responsible adults, we need to decide what our values are, both for ourselves and for what we’re willing to accept. It is a given that you will be confronted with a grey area at some point in your life, which may require you to consider what’s truly important to you. We may not be able to resolve all of society’s problems, at least not right away, but perhaps by starting on a smaller scale, we can set a better example for others.

This is part of my “Year of Blogging” series for 2017. If you liked this essay, tell me about it on Twitter!

The Design of Perception

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